Beyond belief (and news)

He thinks ! He analyzes! He prays?

Or is it: He prays! He analyzes! He thinks?

Which is more newsworthy? Well, the answer very much depends on the lens journalists are using to cover the nomination of Dr. Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health. President Barack Obama's nomination of the renowned geneticist and public Christian hasn't flooded the news pages -- but it is making waves on the opinion pages and the blogosphere.

Let's take a look at a few news articles to see what journalists find noteworthy about Collins. Earlier this week Mollie referred to the brief article in the New York Times.

There's less than a paragraph here about Collin's "public embrace of religion" and a confused snippet about some people's concerns about his "evangelism." Reading this a second or third time, I'm wondering if the writer actually was trying to say that some people were worried that Collins (often described as an "evangelical" by the way) is too "evangelical" in his mission to explore connections between science and religion.

Nobody has suggested, to my knowledge that the geneticist has been either evangelizing his colleagues -- or going door to door in his neighborhood, Gospel in hand.

The lede from the Associated Press story notes the "common ground" theme but doesn't do anything with it.

President Barack Obama is choosing an influential scientist who helped unravel the human genetic code -- and is known for finding common ground between belief in God and science -- to head the National Institutes of Health.

Obama called Dr. Francis Collins "one of the top scientists in the world" in announcing his nomination Wednesday.

"His groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease," Obama said.

Since AP writer Lauran Neergaard only makes one more reference to the nominee's beliefs, the clause almost seems like an afterthought. If it's important enough to be in the headline, where's the rest of the story? A look at his Biologos Foundation website would give interested journalists a lot of information about Collins' scientific and theological ideas without having to read his book on the subject before writing the story.

Admittedly, this scientist doesn't fit traditional labels -- he's neither an anti-science creationist or an atheistic scientist. Collins doesn't believe in either creationism or intelligent design, plays the guitar, and campaigned for Obama last year. Would conservative evangelicals recognize Collins as one of their own? And no, it's not the hipster shades!

The NPR discussion last week with Steve Inskeep and Jon Hamilton on Morning Edition mentioned concerns among some scientists about whether there would be a conflict between his faith in God and devotion to science -- in large part, apparently, because Collins has been so public about his faith and some scientists don't see how science and faith can be reconciled to one another. That said, the reporter gave a very positive view of Collins.

Yet the reliance on unnamed scientists really doesn't help the criticisms from the these sources seem like more than snarking. And the reporters, as well intentioned as they are, have the air of anthropologists trying to figure out: what is that mutated animal is I glimpsed through the bush?

Could this be natural selection gone wild?

Some interesting reactions out in the blogosphere and on the opinion pages -- over at Rod Dreher's Crunch Con page at Beliefnet, writer Erin comments, with regard to the New York Times article, that: "the fact that Dr. Collins' profession of a faith that millions of Americans share raises concerns and objections to his appointment is, itself, a troubling sign of that possible future."

But Beliefnet boss Steven Waldman, writing for the Wall Street Journal, finds Collins' appointment a "significant" development in the culture wars:

Mr. Collins was mocked by Bill Maher in his movie Religulous, so perhaps Mr. Collins' appointment will generate suspicion among secularists. And because he's advocated "theistic evolution" -- the idea that God set in motion the laws of the universe, including natural selection -- there are some more fundamentalist Christians who may sniff at Mr. Collins.

But to me, Mr. Collins is not just a scientific leader, he's a Christian role model. He shows that being a believer doesn't mean checking your brain at the church door, that people of faith have just as much intellectual heft as seculars and, most important, how faith and science can happily co-exist.

I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to say that it's highly likely the respected geneticist will be confirmed. Whether his faith will be a subject of controversy, or troubling to those anonymous sources as head of the NIH remains to be seen. If there are critics, let's hope that this time readers actually get attributed quotes, but also a fuller explanation of what, exactly, troubles these scientists.

Could it be simply the fact of his faith?

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